Wednesday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Rex Tillerson was like watching the newest season of a soap opera. I almost broke out some popcorn.
Former CEO of Exxon Mobil, one of the world’s most profitable corporations, is President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the next Secretary of State (SOS). He clearly demonstrated that he is an intelligent, well-informed man during the first six hours or so of his hearing. He was polished, articulate, and clearly knowledgeable about basic information of countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to North Korea to Equatorial Guinea. Yet despite the many times Tillerson used the word “honor” during Tuesday’s hearing, he ended up revealing that he just doesn’t get the full concept and depth of this crucial position.
Tillerson was less than impressive when it came to anything about the particulars of a current situation. Over and over (and over) again, he resorted to “I need more information,” “I have not been briefed,” or “I do not have all the facts that you do.” Kudos for admitting your lack of knowledge, but for a guy being interviewed for the top diplomatic position in the US, it was amazing to see how many variations of “I don’t know” Tillerson could come up with. I almost started keeping a tally.
We want our government and SOS to be fully updated. They should only be operating and sharing the most recent facts, but to have Tillerson admit to being so unaware of many issues and dodging moral questions is both entertaining and horrifying. Granted, there are rumors that Tillerson only very recently gained security clearance, but many of the hearing questions went beyond basic knowledge. Dancing around questions and dodging anything that may relate to his future actions because he doesn’t know is a shitty way to start as SOS.
This isn’t to say that Tillerson said nothing at all. In fact, many of the definitive things he finally got around to saying differed from Trump’s foreign policy. He rejected the idea of an immigration ban on Muslims. Referring to Trump’s statement of rapists and criminals from Mexico needing to be stopped, he stated that he would “never characterize an entire population with any single term at all,” and that “Mexico is a longstanding neighbor and friend of this country.” He offered an ironclad commitment to NATO; if a NATO member is invaded, Tillerson immediately said that the US would join other members in coming to aid despite Trump’s previous suggestions. However, he tread very lightly around Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. He did take the time to call them out on their violence against gays and women, but instead used it to bring up Hillary Clinton and pointedly asking why she wouldn’t “give back the money” her family foundation accepted from the kingdom.
But the main focus for much of the hearing was Tillerson’s relationship with Russia. Whereas Trump as a candidate played down Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Tillerson called Putin’s Russia a threat to the US. He went on record stating that the annexation was illegal and amounted to “a taking of a territory that was not theirs.” Tillerson refused to label Putin a war criminal when prompted to do so by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, even when Russian involvement in the backing of the murderous Assad regime in Syria was brought up. Dodging direct questions about Russia helped Tillerson create even more vague ideas about how to accurately represent American interests without shutting down future opportunities for Trump to work with Putin- or even his own interests.
Tillerson did a piss poor job of clearing up his personal relationship with Putin and Russia. He refused to take a position on Russian sanctions, and may have outright lied about his former company lobbying against the current ones.
There are those accusing Rubio of attacking Tillerson with almost a personal vehemence, but I think Rubio’s interrogation was actually one of the strongest. We need to hold the incoming administration accountable for their words- and Tillerson has some things to answer for.
When asked whether he or Exxon Mobil had lobbied against Russian sanctions, he said no.
“I have never lobbied against sanctions,” Tillerson said. “To my knowledge, Exxon never directly lobbied against sanctions.”
Exxon Mobil has a long history of advocacy and engagement around issues related to international sanctions. Hell, through a European subsidiary, the company managed to do business with Iran, Syria, and Sudan despite those countries having US Sanctions. The sanctions on Russia cut into its profits profoundly, and should those Russian sanctions be lifted, they stand to make billions.
Fun fact: the secretary of state would be responsible for enforcing sanctions.
Conflict of interest much? Okay, Tillerson has since resigned from his position at Exxon Mobil. But that still doesn’t provide a logical explanation for his responses to sanction questions at the hearing.
Exxon cut a $3.2 billion oil exploration deal with Rosneft, run by Russian oligarch Igor Sechin, in 2014. Sanctions against Russia have cost the company a significant loss in profits. It’s not unreasonable to assume Exxon’s lobbying was against, or at least looking to modify those sanctions. Tillerson claimed that he wanted to avoid putting “lives at risk and the environment at risk” by abandoning an oil rig operating in the Arctic. That sounds all well and good, but Senator Bob Corker, the Republican in charge of the hearing, even called Tillerson out on his response, saying, “I think you called me at the time.” Tillerson then admitted that was true, but he only called to understand “how the sanctions are going to be constructed.” Without audio evidence of the telephone call, it is impossible to prove what Tillerson asked or why he was asking specific questions during that conversation with the Senator. Still, it makes little sense that the CEO of one of the biggest oil corporations would just be curious about how sanctions were going to be constructed.
It doesn’t take a huge leap to believe Tillerson was probing for information on how to dismantle or work around the sanctions. Yet believing something and proving something are two different beasts, and Tillerson understands the distinction. He’s clearly not an idiot.
Too bad we’re in the 21st century. Fact checkers immediately leapt into action. Politico’s reporting from last December directly contradicts Tillerson, where proof was found that ExxonMobil successfully lobbied against a bill that would have made it harder for the next President to lift sanctions against Russia, clearing the way for them to restart their business to gain profits again.
Wall Street Journal reporter Byron Tau, who dedicated himself to covering corporate lobbying, tweeted evidence of Tillerson’s attempted deception as well.
“There are 14 lobbying reports where Exxon lists lobbying on sanctions between 2006 and 2014, despite what Tillerson just said under oath.” He goes on to detail several public reports contradicting Tillerson’s testimony.
So either Tillerson is an inept executive, at the top of the food chain of a billion dollar corporation with no idea what his underlings were doing, or he’s a shameless liar committing a felony through perjury. The Democratic-aligned opposition research group American Bridge has already asked FBI Director James Comey to investigate whether Tillerson lied under oath.
Tillerson’s claims thus seem based on either willing ignorance or complete fraud. Coming from a Trump nominee, it’s hard to tell which is the truth. The question is unlikely to be answered though, as it would take some Republican defectors to get in the way of his eventual confirmation.